“In a country where every gentleman is a soldier, and every soldier a student in the art of war, it necessarily follows that military treatises will be considerably sought after, and attended to.”

– Hugh Henry Ferguson, editor of the American edition of Military Instructions for Officers Detached in the Field (Philadelphia, 1775)


The young officers of the Continental Army who pledged their lives to the cause of American independence were enthusiastic and ambitious, but most entered service without military experience or training. Even the senior commanders were self-taught warriors, relying on knowledge learned from books to expand on lessons learned in the field. George Washington, Henry Knox and other leaders urged their men to study the growing literature on the art of war to prepare for the role of leading troops in battle against the British army.

To meet the demand for military texts, a flood of printings began to appear from the American presses. Much of this activity was centered in Philadelphia, where more than thirty works on military subjects were published in the years 1775 and 1776 alone. Initially these books were reprints or new editions of British or European standards, but publishers quickly turned to a new generation of American military authors whose works reflected the immediacy of the war.

In 1779, Congress ordered the publication of the first official manual for the Continental Army, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. Written by Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm Steuben, the Prussian volunteer who had transformed the army at Valley Forge, the Regulations codified the governance of the army, from the basic drill to the specific duties of each officer rank. Finally Washington’s army was reading from the same book, a crucial step in building the fighting force that would win American independence.

Books in the Field featured thirty-one books that were read and studied by American soldiers and citizens during the Revolutionary War. Also on exhibit were manuscripts and other items that tie the books to actual use in the period. A highlight of the show was an original Continental Army knapsack of the type that might have carried its owner’s military books, on loan from a private collection.

The books in the exhibition were drawn from the Robert Charles Lawrence Fergusson Collection on the art of war, which marked its thirtieth anniversary in 2018.